By: Tristan Fleming-Froy
A few weeks ago, I was one of a few lucky board members to be invited to the 2018 Global Youth Trends Forum in Taipei. Of course, although we were there for the forum, we took the opportunity to explore Taipei in our off-time. We saw some sights, met great people and enjoyed a whole range of great Taiwanese food. But perhaps the most interesting part of our trip wasn’t in Taipei, but instead on Taiwan’s often overlooked East coast. By leaving the big cities we saw Taiwan’s more natural side and learned about a couple of Taiwan’s many indigenous peoples, who are often forgotten in modern Taiwan.
Before the Forum kicked off, all the delegates were taken down to Hualien, a small town on Taiwan’s East coast. The East coast is less explored by foreigners – since most of Taiwan’s population lives in the North and West, few people seem to venture past Taiwan’s huge mountains to the other side. However, it’s well worth the trip. Dark green forests cover the mountains, which fill the skyline before crashing down into the Pacific Ocean. The ocean is a pale blue where it laps at the cliffs, then suddenly darkens where the continental shelf drops away, extending to the horizon.
Taiwan realises there is really beauty in the East – several large sections have been designated as national parks. We visited Taroko National Park, just north of Hualien. Battling through the heavy rain, we walked through a deep, long gorge, and marvelled at the clear turquoise water running through it. The park takes its name from the indigenous Truku people who live in the area; or at least the Japanese translation of Truku. Traditionally, the Truku people wore face tattoos which marked significant moments in their lives and showed their membership as part of their tribe. These tattoos were also important in death, as the Truku believed they would cross a rainbow bridge in the afterlife and needed their face tattoos to be recognised and accepted by their ancestors. However, when the Japanese ruled Taiwan, they banned the practice. Although Japan no longer governs the island, the anti-tattooing policy took a heavy toll. Not only that, but in Taiwan today, many indigenous peoples (especially the young) are torn between maintaining their heritage and blending into modern society. As a result, few Truku bear the traditional face tattoos. Taroko National Park is, therefore, a beautiful showcase of nature, but also a sad reminder of how minority culture is challenged by a changing.
The following day we experienced a different indigenous culture, although in a far more uplifting way. We spent much of the day meeting local Amis people, with the man in charge giving us all an informative but very entertaining explanation of the Amis people and their culture and traditions. The Amis are another of Taiwan’s minorities, known for their unique Palakaw fishing style and vibrant traditional clothing and dance. So obviously they wanted us to participate, although some people were better at catching fish than others. Fortunately, plenty of fish were caught for dinner. And what a feast it was! We were treated to a huge spread of Amis recipes, including salt-baked fish, rice and red beans steamed in bamboo and seafood stew cooked using hot rocks. Finally came the dancing, led by a group of older Amis women in vibrant outfits that blended the modern and traditional. The day was fun, but educational; standing in contrast to what we had learned about the Truku, it was an entirely different experience for the Amis to proudly share their living, breathing culture with us.
Our trip to Taiwan was enjoyable for many reasons. The Global Youth Trends Forum was a great opportunity to meet new people from all over the world and discuss future issues that affect us all, and Taipei is an interesting city to explore. But Taiwan doesn’t possess a single people or single culture. If you ever have the opportunity to go, I recommend you go beyond the main cities, and try to meet people whose stories, both modern and historical, might otherwise go unheard. You never know what you might find.